The former church of the Holy Trinity, Marylebone Road was built in 1826-28 to the designs of Sir John Soane, of the three London churches. It was the most expensive, and externally the most architecturally distinguished of these three churches. It underwent various changes in the course of the later nineteenth century, in particular the rebuilding and refitting of the chancel in 1878 and the addition of and outdoor pulpit in 1892. In the 1950s the parish was united with the adjoining parish of St Marylebone, and Holy Trinity was converted to offices for the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, with and area for worship retained at the liturgical east end. In 2005 the SPCK vacated the building, and it was formally declared redundant.
Apart from the loss of the original chancel and most of the original fittings, the basic structure of Soane’s church survives complete, and is of national architectural and historical significance. The later nineteenth century alterations to the church are not of the same importance, but are nevertheless of major local significance.
A new use is now required which secures the building for the future while preserving those qualities which lend the building its particular significance. The layout of the church and the simplicity of the plan offer significant opportunities for increased provision of accommodation and improved circulation, while retaining and indeed enhancing the special interest of the building.
Holy Trinity church was built at a time of rising urban population in the years after Napoleonic wars. This population growth, coupled with the lack of provision for the Anglican churches, led to government concern that the newly urbanised population would turn increasingly to dissenting sects, Roman Catholicism or simply become unchurched. A shoring up of the Established Church in these areas was therefore considered necessary for moral, political and social reasons. In 1818 the Tory government passed an Act and made £1 million available for the ‘Building and Promoting the Building of Additional Churches in Populous Parishes’, thus inaugurating a program of church building unequalled in England since the Middle Ages. The task of overseeing this grand project was entrusted to a Commission of churchmen, who made an annual report to Parliament, but who otherwise operated independently.
In 1818 there were over 80 parishes in London alone with a population over 2000 and without adequate church room, and the grant of £1 million would only build 50 churches at an average price of £20,000. Economy was therefore the watchword, and parishes were expected to contribute towards the cost wherever possible.
In 1818 Sir John Soane, along with John Nash and Sir Robert Smirke, the three Crown Architects and the three leading architects of the day, were asked by the Office of Works to draw up specimen plans and prices for churches in accordance with the Act. Churches had to be able to cater for large congregations of up to 2000, all able to hear and see the preacher in the pulpit. Due significance was also given to the altar, which was usually placed in a short sanctuary recess of 8-15 ft depth. Buildings were to be constructed of stone or brick; stucco and compositions such as Coade stone were forbidden. The budgetary constraints of the Act were extremely restrictive. When Soane sent his specimen drawings to the Office of Works he took issue with the requirement that he should ‘consider of the most economical mode of building Churches with a view of accommodating the greatest number of Persons at the smallest Expense…’ He advised ‘I apprehend the largest Churches cannot be built with a requisite attention to their character and durability for a sum less than thirty thousand pound’. This was to put him on a collision course with the Commissioners. By 1820 it was clearly evident that churches could be built for less than that, and as early as 1818 Thomas Rickman had submitted designs for a church costing only £6457. White it was of course possible to build more cheaply than Soane would have preferred, it remains true that many of the wide range of architects who went on to build churches under the Act build compromised buildings, on account of insufficient funds.
Soane’s letter to the Office of Works also set out his thoughts on the criteria that should govern the form and design of the Commissioners’ churches. He advised that:
- The church interior should not exceed 90ft in length and 70ft in width, and that the square and the parallelogram were the most economical forms;
- The walls should be of brick, with stone used only sparingly for dressings and paving;
- The roof should be covered with lead;
- The ceilings should be flat;
- The widows should be principally of iron, ‘glazed in small squares of metal’;
- The pews and timber finishes should be of deal, and the interior stucco painted white;
- Enclosed seats should be avoided, and the aisles should be wide with sufficient space for open benches for the poor.